A Quick Guide to the Different Types of Archaeology

Posted in Uncategorized

Like it? Share it!

Different Types of Archaeology

Archaeology pertains to piecing together the past, bit by bit, and attempting to complete the jigsaw. It is a very broad discipline that involves a variety of viewpoints with respect to interpretation of history, and also a number of specializations.

Archaeology involves reconstructing history with the help of material remains. It is a stimulating job of interpreting material culture in human terms. It involves both, toiling hard in the field as well as formulating hypotheses in the laboratory/study. An archaeologist has to be, therefore, extremely well-versed in other disciplines which archaeology encompasses, that include history, anthropology, and other social and general sciences. It is thus a subject having a multidisciplinary approach, wherein every small thing matters.

Types of Archaeology

On the Basis of Nature of Work
On the Basis of Historic Time Period

Archaeology is of several types, and each demands either specific or multiple specializations. The various kinds of archaeologies have been classified into two categories, viz., on the basis of the nature of work that is involved, and on the basis of historic time periods.

On The Basis Of Nature Of Work

Archaeology has been categorized into various types on the basis of nature of the work involved in the process of data collection and analysis. This depends to a large extent on where an excavation or an exploration is taking place, and with what point of view an archaeologist wants to interpret history.

Environmental Archaeology

Environmental archaeology

Richardson Gill carried out extensive work in environmental archaeology in order to study the impact of climatic changes on the Mayan society. According to his theory, a continuous series of droughts were responsible for the numerous societal changes and subsequent decline of the ancient civilization.

Environmental archaeology deals with the study of interrelationship between the ancient people and their natural environment. It involves three sub-disciplines of archaeology, viz., zooarchaeology that deals with the study of ancient animal remains, geoarchaeology that deals with the study of soil, sediments, rocks, natural deposits, etc., and archaeobotany that studies ancient plant remains. Environmental archaeology answers questions relating to the kind of natural habitat that the ancient people were surrounded by, the plants and animals living in that age, varieties of wild and cultivated crops, animals that were hunted and those which were domesticated, species of plants and animals that are now extinct, climatic changes that took place over a period of time, and the effects that the changes in natural environment had on the lives of the people and on their subsequent disappearance. Environmental archaeology encompasses field studies along with laboratory experiments.


Dr. Malti Nagar carried out an ethnoarchaeological study at a chalcolithic site of Ahar in Rajasthan, India. She found striking resemblances between the dotted designs on the clothes of the local tribal women and on the designs on the ancient ceramics recovered from the site. This shows how artistic sensibilities travel from one time period to the other.

Ethnoarchaeology is the science that deals with the ethnographic investigation of living communities in order to acquire knowledge of the past. It involves the application of anthropological methods to a large extent. By using ethnoarchaeological techniques, archaeologists, in a way, attempt to link the past with the present. They try to understand how the ancient people in a given region may have lived, keeping as their basis, the tangible and intangible culture of the modern communities. One can get valuable insights into ancient social structures, religious and cultural beliefs, technology, etc., by applying the principles of ethnoarchaeology. But, the link between modern and ancient societies is of course still very ambiguous. This is because, even if two societies share some common traits, they may be distinct from each other in many aspects, which tend to change by default over a period of time. Nevertheless, studying advanced techniques of modern communities may help to a certain extent to provide an insight into the rudimentary techniques, which may have been used by the ancients.

Landscape Archaeology

Landscape archaeology

A comprehensive study of a historical landscape with respect to the rise and decline of urbanism was done in the early 1950s by Bernard-Philippe Groslier in the Angkor region of Cambodia. He uncovered numerous evidences to show that overexploitation of landscape was the main factor responsible for the decline of urban centers in the area.

Landscape archaeology is a broad division in archaeology that deals with the study of the various changes that take place in different landscapes, both naturally as well as due to human intervention. On the basis of this, landscapes have been classified into natural and cultural landscapes, for archaeological purposes. The study of how landscapes and natural habitats are interlinked with human behavior and cultural changes is actually very extensive. There are a variety of changes that landscapes may undergo over a period of time. These include natural changes with respect to topography, climate, soil, natural calamities such as floods, landslides, tsunamis, rivers changing their courses, and so on, and human induced changes such as agriculture, industrial and construction activities, clearing of forest areas, etc. Interestingly, the methods in landscape archaeology are also used in order to analyze inequalities that may have prevailed in a social structure at a given period of time.

Household Archaeology

Household archaeology

Dr. Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester had been excavating the household remains at Pompeii. Evidences revealed a number of surgical instruments from many houses, which shows that first aid was available at the household level.

Household archaeology is a comparatively recent development in archaeology that happened between the late 1970s and early 1980s. It involves a small-scale excavation within a given area on an archaeological site. It considers every single household as a unit that not only portrays the social, cultural, economic, and political sensibilities of the people of a particular household/family, but also throws light on the affiliations of the society on the whole. Household archaeology is also helpful in studying aspects of secular art and architecture, food habits of the people, their religious beliefs, and so on. Gender classification in the social order is an interesting aspect that can be studied by this kind of archaeological method. Variety of evidences are taken into consideration in the study of household archaeology, which include vegetal and faunal remains, pottery, processes of site formation, etc.

Underwater Archaeology

Underwater archaeology

Franck Goddio and his team managed to reveal the supposed lost palace of Cleopatra, which was believed to be submerged under the sea some 1600 years ago. This excavation was carried out off the shores of the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

This is also known as marine archaeology or maritime archaeology. It is associated with the study of underwater evidences such as shipwrecks, water-buried cities, and other inundated archaeological sites. It is an expensive branch of archaeology and incurs a much higher cost than any terrestrial archaeological excavation. Knowledge of specific techniques and methods that need to be adopted in order to carry out excavations underwater is a prerequisite. Archaeologists practicing in this field attempt to discover submerged evidences by diving into the deep waters along with sophisticated archaeological tools. An underwater excavation may also turn out to be a little risky at times because one cannot guess what the conditions under the sea would be like. However, it makes an exciting profession for adventure lovers.

Aviation Archaeology

Aviation archaeology

In 2005, Hungarian archaeologists used methods of geophysical survey in order to locate a lost plane that crashed in Budapest during World War II. Remains recovered from this excavation included the plane’s engine block, a part of one of its wings, a part where the ammunition was kept, etc.

Aviation archaeology deals with finding historical remains of aircraft, air-borne weaponry, abandoned air bases or runways, and the like. In short, it deals with everything that has to do with the history of aviation. Sometimes, remains from aircraft crashes are found under the sea, which are eventually recovered, recorded and studied. It is due to this reason that many people consider aviation archaeology as a branch of marine archaeology, but this may only be true to a limited extent. This is because there are also a number of aviation archaeological remains found on land, in which case, it becomes a separate division in itself. Crash sites differ largely in magnitude and remains. The remains range from military remains to civil remnants. Instances of ancient air bases found by aviation archaeologists have also been recorded. As far as the actual professional practice of aviation archaeology is concerned, there may be some legal constraints, which can be overcome through adequate paperwork and permissions.

Aerial Archaeology

Aerial archaeology

In January 2010, The Guardian reported a discovery of a pre-Columbian civilization called El Dorado made during the aerial exploration of the Amazon rainforest. It was the result of the methods of aerial archaeology, without which, the vestiges of such an advanced civilization contemporary to the Aztecs and the Incas would have vanished.

Aerial archaeology, as the name suggests, is the investigation of archaeological remains from the air. This is a concept that gained impetus after aerial survey and photography were considered to be important during the two world wars. Archaeologists thought of applying this technique to record the bird’s-eye view of archaeological sites, so that they could get a better perspective of the same. Doing aerial surveys also help archaeologists to spot new sites, which otherwise would have been a difficult task, as some things can be better captured from an altitude. Aerial archaeology does not involve actual excavation, which is quite obvious. On the contrary, it involves detailed exploration from an altitude, so that newer sites can be discovered, and the sites which already exist can be recorded from a different perspective. Nowadays, the technique of satellite imagery also forms part of aerial archaeology.

Battlefield Archaeology

Battlefield archaeology

From 1985 – 89, Douglas Scott and Melissa Connor carried out the first ever large-scale excavation on a battlefield site of Little Bighorn in Montana, USA. They gathered in the form of evidences, bullets, bullet shells, cartridge cases, skeletal remains, etc.

Battlefield archaeology, also known as military archaeology, is one of the most intriguing types of archaeologies. It deals with digging up battlefields of the past and recovering evidences relating to military activities, which may have been responsible for subsequent changes in the social, political and economic spheres of the society. Archaeological evidences recovered from battlefields have the capability to alter those historical viewpoints which have been widely accepted and acknowledged. Evidences on such sites include remains of implements of war, skeletal remains, and various artifacts related to military history. These so-called war sites give valuable evidences to events, which took place not only during a given war, but also before and after it, because not only actual battlefields but even military camp sites provide valuable evidences. Also, just as all other sites tell us about how and when people lived, war sites tell us how and when they died. All in all, battlefield archaeology is an engrossing case-study of how written historical accounts can undergo changes when actual material remains relating to the recorded events are uncovered.

Commercial Archaeology

In the 1940s, Sir Mortimer Wheeler excavated at Arikamedu, near Pondicherry, South India. Evidently, this site was a fishing village and an important foreign trading port during 1st century B.C. Artifacts recovered include Roman coins, statues, beads, glassware and pottery.

Commercial archaeology is actually a sub-discipline of archaeology, which deals with everything that is related to commerce and trade. This includes evidences with respect to the commodities that were traded and bartered, numismatic finds, ancient forms of transportation that were used for commercial purposes, and so on. The study of ancient trade routes and sea ports, harbors and marketplaces, is also included in commercial archaeology. This is a very gripping study, as it answers questions such as which countries had trade relations and in what commodities, what were the media of exchange between them, how the commodities were transported, who and what all was involved, how they coordinated, etc. Many a time, at commercial sites, ancient inscriptions are found, which are obviously very valuable resources that are used for recording economic histories.

Industrial Archaeology

Industrial archaeology

The Sunny Corner Mining site, located in New South Wales, Australia, is an interesting site pertaining to industrial archaeology, which belongs to the late 19th and the early 20th century. This was supposedly one of the richest sites for silver mining in Australia, and has numerous remains of mining and smelting processes.

Industrial archaeology is another kind of archaeology, which studies the material remains of industrial by-products and artifacts. It does not deal with the movement of goods from one place to another. On the contrary, it deals with the production of goods and the various processes involved in the same. Evidences from industrial sites tell us about the industries that existed during a given period in history, things that were manufactured then, the tools that were used at that time, and attempt to answer queries like what people did other than agriculture (which primarily was the main occupation in many regions), what, where and how did they manufacture, what raw materials were used and where did they get them from, how advanced was their technology, why did they manufacture what they did, and so on. Evidences recovered from such sites generally include those related to activities such as manufacturing, mining, quarrying, milling, building roads and other infrastructure, etc.

Salvage Archaeology

Salvage archaeology

The Turkish State Water Department proposed to build a number of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in 1986. The extent of this project also covered nearly half a mile of Zeugma, an ancient Anatolian trading center. Rescue excavations on the site uncovered numerous structures, mosaics, stone sculptures, etc.

Salvage archaeology, also known as rescue archaeology, is a name given to an archaeological excavation which needs to be carried out in an emergency and with utmost urgency on threatened sites. Salvage archaeological operations are carried out on sites that are on the verge of being destroyed by new road constructions, dams, buildings, or any other kind of infrastructure development. The duty of the archaeologist then, is to locate as many sites as possible in an assigned area, explore them, and excavate them if deemed necessary, and ultimately record in detail all the finds that have been procured. Generally, in case of salvage archaeology, time is a constraint, and so detailed excavation is difficult to carry out. Therefore, archaeologists tend to record whatever is found on the surface at the time of exploration. But, if it is realized during the exploration that the site holds a prominent place in history, then detailed excavation can be carried out and can thus alter the construction plans in some way or the other.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology

A classic example of practical application of the methods of experimental archaeology, which was also aired on television worldwide, was a series known as Living in the Past. Here, they attempted to recreate an entire settlement belonging to the Iron Age of 2nd century B.C., in order to bring to life the life-ways of the ancient people.

Experimental archaeology is a kind of archaeological study in which archaeologists try to figure out how the archaeological deposits were formed. In the course of this quest, they experiment with various processes, which they think people might have applied in the past in order to make or manufacture all those things which make the archaeological deposit. This experimentation of remaking or replicating things using the methods of the past is the core of the entire concept of experimental archaeology. Archaeological finds ranging from pottery to structures are actually replicated using historical methods, which helps to understand the past technologies as well as the resources available to them. Flint napping or the replication of prehistoric stone tools is an interesting activity practiced in experimental archaeology. This has helped, to a large extent, in understanding the prehistoric habitat and the rudimentary techniques that were used by prehistoric man to make his much-needed tools. It has to be noted, however, that experimental archaeology is related to a large extent to the imaginations of the archaeologists, with regards to the period in question. Because, most of the things, especially structures, are seldom found intact; the replication mostly depends on the perception of the archaeologist.

Forensic Archaeology

Forensic archaeology

Law enforcement agencies went on to employ forensic archaeologists in order to investigate the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. They proved to be of great help in locating the graves and in finding valuable evidences to be presented in the court of law.

Forensic archaeology is a newly developed stream and a very interesting one. It pertains to the use of archaeological techniques in finding evidences on crime scenes. Forensic archaeologists are generally employed by the security services in order to investigate crimes and catch the culprits. Duties of archaeologists in this field of archaeology include collecting evidences like human burials, artifacts, footprints, tool-marks, etc., and trying to figure out the situation in which a particular crime might have happened; and to ascertain the influences on the remains of external factors that may have disturbed the crime scene. They also try to find whether all the remains are in situ, and if not, how and when they landed up where they currently lie. The findings of forensic archaeologists prove to be very effective in the court of law, and help the police to a great extent in the investigation of the occurred crime.

On The Basis Of Historic Time Period

Apart from these main kinds of archaeologies, the discipline has also been divided into various kinds on the basis of historical time periods. This classification is in order to ease the process of assigning peculiar characteristics to the finds of a particular era, a particular dynasty, or a particular region.

Prehistoric Archaeology

Prehistoric archaeology

Some of the important prehistoric sites include Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania; Sunbury Earth Rings, Australia; Stonehenge, England; Lascaux, France; Bhimbetka, India; Iwajuku, Japan; and Barton Gulch, United States.

Prehistory is the name assigned to the period before the invention of writing. Obviously, there are no written records or historical accounts from the prehistoric age, and so, whatever we know about prehistory is simply through physical archaeological finds. Prehistory has been classified into Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic periods, on the basis of the developments that took place over a period of time in the human lifestyles. Prehistory also includes periods before the lithic age (stone age), which preceded the existence of humans. Thus, prehistoric archaeology is actually a vast discipline, and there is a lot of scope for original research, as there are a number of prehistoric mysteries that are to be yet unraveled.

Protohistoric Archaeology

Some major protohistoric sites include Sammallahdenmäki, Finland; Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan; Dholavira, Lothal and Kalibangan, India; Ur, Iraq; Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan; Memphis, Egypt; and Cornwall, United Kingdom.

Protohistory is the period that lies in between prehistory and history. Though this is a period that came after the invention of writing, many of the evidences have not been deciphered yet. Protohistory encompasses the bronze age and iron age, and sometimes even the copper age, but this differs from region to region. Dating of this period is a difficult task for an archaeologist, as this again depends on regional and cultural aspects. But, we know from the data available that it was during the protohistoric period that great ancient civilizations of the world sprang up, and the world took its first and prominent steps towards urbanization. Thus, it is an important transitional phase, and sites are loaded with surprising artifacts, which makes protohistoric archaeology an interesting option.

Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology

Famous historical sites in the world include Machu Picchu, Peru; Angkor Wat, Cambodia; Pyramids of Giza, Egypt; Easter Island, Chile; Petra, Jordan; Taxila, Pakistan; and Sanchi, India.

Historical archaeology studies that period of the history of mankind from which we have ample written sources that tell us a huge variety of things. So, historical archaeology involves the study of not only the artifacts recovered from the archaeological sites but also of the documented evidences that have been left behind. Sites relating to historical archaeology are spread across the world in large numbers, and each of these help reconstruct different kinds of aspects of human past, such as industries, trade, art and architecture, social and cultural history, military history, and so on. However, it should be noted that historical records are not always correct, and hence, it should be supplemented with other evidences.

Classical Archaeology

Classical archaeology

World-famous classical archaeological sites include Parthenon, Greece; Knossos, Crete Islands; and Troy, northwest of Turkey.

Classical archaeology is a special branch of archaeology which pertains only to Greece and Rome. It deals with a detailed study of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Classical archaeology not only studies these two civilizations individually, but also in relation to other contemporary civilizations of that period. It also studies the influences of and on other civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a very interesting field of study, but because it pertains to specific regions, is limited in scope.

Medieval and Modern Archaeology

Classical archaeology

Some important sites are Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Turkey; Aleppo, Syria; Hebron, Israel; and Hampi, India.

Medieval archaeology deals with the study of material remains of human culture belonging to the middle ages. Similarly, modern archaeology pertains to the study of the colonial and post-colonial periods in history. Material remains of these periods aid, in most cases, only to establish firmly the facts from the written records of these periods, which are available in large numbers.

There are a large number of people who want to practice archaeology, but are not quite exposed to the field. On the other hand, there are also a large number of people who do not practice it properly and tend to completely ignore or oppose the established hypotheses and theories of archaeologists and historians. This kind of non-scientific and baseless approach to archaeology is known as pseudoarchaeology or cult archaeology, which is sometimes a result of religious fundamentalism. Moreover, a fantastical form of archaeological study related to the physical remains of aliens, known as xenoarchaeology, has also been conceptually put forth by some. However, this cannot be an established mainstream discipline. Nevertheless, archaeology, with its numerous types, becomes an absolutely amazing package.

Get Updates Right to Your Inbox

Sign up to receive the latest and greatest articles from our site automatically each week (give or take)...right to your inbox.
Blog Updates